Professional ethics and informal social media

Last year I spoke to a big room full of occupational therapists at their annual conference and I promised to do a follow up with a smaller group over at Therapy Learning. So today I took a day’s annual leave from BCU, and went to Melton Mowbray (where the pies come from) to talk to a few occupational therapists and some physiotherapists about social media things.

The format of the day was for them to find out a bit about some tools they might like to use to help their professional practice. The most interesting stuff we did were chats about how thi sall fits into what they do. These are regulated professionals, so ethics is a big part of their job. While we were trying to unpick what a therapist should and shouldn’t do in social media, we were looking at the activity of a few therapists who actively use social media in a professional context. What we discovered was that even when people have good intentions, they can slip. Here’s an example tweet:

When hearing what I did for a living, my bank manager confessed to breaking down earlier this year. Reminded him he is one of 1 in 4…

That’s over the line. Big time. In the flow of a conversation, and the heat of the moment, it may have seemed reasonable to the author. The bank manager isn’t named at all, but really this isn’t good enough. If you know the person, and who they bank with (maybe they’ve written you a cheque, or you all live in a small town with only one bank), you’d easily know who they’re talking about. It’s a breach of trust, and an ethical fail.

We tend to think about digital footprints as being all about us: don’t put drunken photos on Facebook, don’t give out your date of birth or your mother’s maiden name. But what about the subjects of our blog posts and our tweets? Have you ever stepped over the line? Have I? I’m not so sure. I may well have done. If you have a duty of care to people, professionally, ethically, morally, take a breath and think before you post.

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Jon Hickman

Hi, I'm Jon. I teach and research digital culture, social media and new media practice at Birmingham City University. Find out more about me with this lovely CV: Find out about my work at the Birmingham Centre for Media & Cultural Research:

  • Kathryn Corrick

    Hi John,Really good example, of how easy it is to cross the line, when we’re in the moment, using social media.I think what’s interesting in this area is that most of us aren’t aware of the law around privacy. So whilst the above example is questionable as regards professional ethics, it is also a possible breach of the 1998 Data Protection Act, as health is described as ‘personal sensitive data’. Sensitive Personal Data is defined in the following ways:* Racial or Ethnic Origin* Political Opinions or Persuasion* Religious Beliefs or other beliefs of a similar nature* Trade Union Membership or Affiliation* Physical or Mental Health or Condition* Sexual Life* Commissioned or Alleged Commission of Offences* Any proceedings for any offence, committed or alleged, including any sentencing decisions made by the Court

  • Jon Hickman

    Blimey I hadn’t thought of that – thanks for the input.

  • Viv

    We were very pleased with the quality of the course that Jon ran for us and this ensuing topic of Data Protection and privacy laws is one that we feel to be exceptionally pertinent and important. Social Networking is obviously an incredibly useful tool for therapists; especially those running their own businesses – it gives the opportunity not to be isolated, to raise our business profiles, to enhance the ability to work with other professionals, to share ideas and thoughts etc. BUT we must be exceptionally aware of the accompanying pitfalls.Every OT takes their Code of Ethics very seriously … but can such networking make us more relaxed and give the potential to let our guard slip? Here at Therapy Learning the bells have rung and we have immediately enlisted the expertise of our speaker, Howard Thomas. His next course on 30 September, ‘Working Independently Within the Law’ is going to include the opportunity to discuss data protection, privacy laws and ethical dilemmas surrounding Social Networking. As long as we maintain our professionalism, understand all boundaries and legal implications there should be no barriers to us embracing this beneficial networking tool. At this years BAOT Conference there are seminars running each day relating to Social Networking as a tool – on Thursday 24th June they have a session entitled ‘Online identity, reputation and professional practice’ – a good session to attend if you have concerns about launching into the twitter revolution.Just remember – when involved in Social Netwoking you are a professional – just act as you would in your work situation. And come to our course on 30 September to understand all legal implications!!

  • stmarysmark

    Interesting post, Jon, and a good insight for some of my colleagues at Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice, where we’re embracing the world of social media. Will forward them the link.